Will We Recognize Our Visitation?
January 5, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of the Epiphany
Reading I (Isaiah 60:1-6) Reading II (Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6)
Gospel (St. Matthew 2:1-12)
The word epiphany means “manifestation,” and so today Our Lord is manifested to the nations as the three kings come from their various countries led by a star to do homage to the greatest King ever to be born into the world. The interesting thing of this is that we have three pagans coming from different places led by the star to Jerusalem and asking where they will find the newborn King of the Jews. The tragedy of all of this, when we read the Gospel, is that the people of Jerusalem did not seem to know anything about this. Herod called the chief priests and all the scribes together to ask them where the King of the Jews was going to be born, “Where is the Messiah going to be born?” And they knew exactly what was said. The prophet had said that He would be born in Bethlehem in Judea, the same city where David, the shepherd who shepherded Israel early on, was born. Now the One who would be the Son of David would be born in the same city as David, and they knew that.
We also need to be very clear that in the ancient world, even without the conveniences of telephones and Internet and everything else, word spread very quickly. Remember what we heard about the birth of John the Baptist, that when he was born and the extraordinary things that occurred and his father’s mouth suddenly being opened once again so he could speak, people asked the question, “Who is this child and what shall he be?” We are told right in the pages of Scripture that word of this spread throughout all the hill country of Judea as the people spoke about this. Part of the hill country of Judea is Jerusalem, slightly over five miles away from Bethlehem. It certainly would not have been too much to expect that they would have heard of the events that took place on the day of Our Lord’s birth, about how angels had appeared to some shepherds. These shepherds, we are told, did not keep things silent; they spoke about the things they saw and heard. We do not know exactly the timing of when the Magi arrived, but we know that Simeon and Anna spoke about the Child Jesus to all of the people. And so we need to ask ourselves what was going on. Why didn’t the people of Jerusalem seem to know anything about the Messiah?
I suspect that it is not because they had not heard, but rather because they did not believe. And isn’t it interesting that when it is three kings from foreign lands that arrive in Jerusalem, suddenly they believed? They did not believe when the elderly woman, who spent day and night in prayer and fasting in the temple, was telling them about it because they probably wrote her off as some crazy nut. They did not believe when Simeon told them about it because they probably wrote him off as some foolish old man who was caught up in himself and had no clue what reality was all about – sort of what people like to say about Pope John Paul II these days, as they write him off because he is elderly: “What does he know about reality in America today?” It is the same kind of attitude that they may have had about Simeon. He spoke the truth and they rejected it. And they found a convenient way of trying to reject it by pointing to something that had no bearing on anything. With the shepherds… they were shepherds, what can you say? “These are the lowly ones in society, so they come up with some story about angels appearing to them and they claim that they found a little baby in a manger just the way that had been told to them, but, after all, we priests and scribes, we don’t need to listen to that nonsense! We know better. When the Messiah comes, surely we will be able to tell exactly what’s happening.” But the reality is that the Messiah came and they totally missed it. Again, we need to be very clear that it was not because they did not know the time. They knew exactly the time. They knew the prophecies that Jeremiah had given; they knew the interpretation that the angel Gabriel himself had given to the prophet Daniel. They knew exactly the time! They knew the place; they knew the family; they had all of the information they needed. They simply refused to believe.
Now I must say they were not a whole lot different from people of our day. We know the times we are living in. We know there are some events that are going to be taking place in our world fairly soon. All we need to do is look around and do exactly what the Second Vatican Council told us and learn how to interpret the signs of the times. We need to pull our heads out of the sand and realize that what is going on in the world today cannot be tolerated for very long. And when we look at what is going on in the world today, and then we look back 2,000 years, we would also have to admit that what is happening today is not a whole lot unlike what was happening then, including the arrogance of the people who think they are going to know better than God. What is happening today is exactly what happened 2,000 years ago. That is, we can look at what is going on and we will just blow everything off because we will say – as they did then – that the Lord has made these promises through the prophets but it has not been fulfilled. “Generations past have assumed that they would be fulfilled in their day and it wasn’t. People in our day assume that they’re going to be fulfilled, but why should we be any different from the past generations? Certainly, it’s not going to be fulfilled in our day either; it’s for some time up the road.” And everybody always assumes that it is not going to take place in their day.
The Lord made Himself manifest. There was a clear epiphany and the people missed it, not because they had not heard, but because they did not want to hear. Look at what it says in the Gospel reading. The Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and they went to Herod and asked where they would find the newborn King of the Jews. We are told that Herod was greatly troubled – and all Jerusalem with him. They did not want to hear about it. They did not want the Messiah; that was the problem. They liked the way they were living their lives: being pagans, who in fact were Jews, but living a pagan life, living just like everybody else. It was too easy. If the Messiah came they would have to change their lives, and they liked too much the way they were living. They did not want to change.
Not a whole lot different from what we have today, is it? If the Lord came, or if He decided that He was going to purify things (which is more likely what is going to happen; it is not time for the Second Coming yet), if there was some clear manifestation of the Lord, just ask yourself how many people you know who would really want that. How many people do you know who want to change their lives, who want to stop living like a bunch of pagans and start living like Catholics? How many people out there do you know – and quite frankly, we need to begin with our own selves and ask ourselves, “How many people, including me, do I know who really want to change their lives and live their life for Jesus Christ?” I would be willing to bet that if you are really honest you would not even need all the fingers that you have to be able to count the number of people. Most people do not want to have Our Lord come back; they do not want to change their lives; they do not want to be different from what they are. And so Our Lord manifested Himself clearly and the people were greatly troubled.
We heard in the first reading all about Jerusalem: Rise up, Jerusalem, and rejoice! We hear about the light that is going to come forth from Jerusalem and that kings will come from afar, led by this light. All of that happened, and Jerusalem rejected the day of her visitation. So we now need to look at ourselves and ask the same question. Look at the signs of the times and ask yourself if it is time to make some changes, because this time the Lord is not going to manifest Himself as a helpless little baby. When the manifestation comes in our day, it is going to be in the form of a sudden chastisement that will befall the world and there is not going to be time to think about whether we want to be troubled or not, whether we want to make a change or not. The times are evident for anyone who wants to look. The times were evident to the people of Jerusalem as well, to the chief priests, to the scribes, to the Pharisees; they all knew, but they did not want it. Do we?
Look around and ask yourself if maybe it is time to reject the ways of our society, to reject the sinfulness and the selfishness and all of the things that lead us away from God. Ask yourself, “What fruit has all of this borne?” Is it time that we had better reject that and choose Jesus Christ? Not merely because we are afraid of what is going to befall the world, that would be totally the wrong reason – it is more selfishness; but rather, because we want to commit ourselves to Christ. We recognize that the fruit borne by this society has not been good and we need to reject that and choose the Lord.
Saint Paul in the second reading, in his Letter to the Ephesians, spoke about a mystery that had been revealed to him that was not revealed to the prophets of old. The revelation was simply one that was different. We see part of that in the first reading today and if we read the prophet Isaiah, if we read the prophet Jeremiah, if we read several of the other prophets, they all tell us of the mystery that the Gentiles are going to be coheirs with the Jews and members of the same body. The problem was that it had not yet been revealed how that was going to happen, and that is the revelation Saint Paul had. Saint Paul, being the ultimate Pharisee, thought he knew exactly how this was going to take place: The Gentiles would have to become Jews because, after all, the truth was revealed to the Jewish people and they knew how this was to happen – or so they thought. The idea that the Jewish Messiah would come into the world and start something new, build upon what had already been revealed in Judaism and incorporate both Jews and Gentiles into something which was surpassing Judaism, was something that they could not grasp. What Our Lord revealed to Saint Paul is that the Jews and the Gentiles were coheirs, not in Judaism, but rather in Catholicism. That was the revelation of the new mystery Saint Paul had that had been withheld from generations earlier.
Now we look at a mystery and we need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible that maybe God is revealing something to us that has been hidden from generations past?” We await the day, still, when the Jews are going to have their mass conversion spoken of by Saint Paul, but it is being rejected by people of our day. Even among some in the hierarchy, they would suggest that. We saw last summer that there was a document that came out that has absolutely no authority, but, nonetheless, was highly touted by the press, which was telling us that it was a document from the American bishops, which it was not, but that is what they were trying to tell us. There were even a number of bishops in America that were taking full credit for this document. In that document, it said explicitly that the Jews do not need Jesus Christ, that they will be saved by the Old Covenant and, therefore, Christian people are not to try to evangelize the Jews. It is false; it is heresy. But it is something that is being accepted by many in our day. The revelation that Saint Paul had – and that continues to be true to our day – is that there will be a mass conversion of the Jews. But that will be one of the signs of the end times, therefore, it has not yet happened – but it will. Perhaps not in our day (because it is not the end of the world yet), but the day is coming when it will happen. How it will happen we do not know; that is yet to be revealed.
What we need to be careful of is not to put God into a box, not to try to pigeonhole the way it is going to happen and think that we know what is going to happen and how, because we do not. We would be no different from the priests and the scribes of Jesus’ own time who thought they had it all together. We need simply to look at God. The revelation of God is in our midst. The full manifestation is right there in Jesus Christ. The question is, do we want it? Two thousand years ago, the simple ones, the holy ones, and the pagans were able to recognize the manifestation of Jesus Christ. The chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, the people of Jerusalem, they all missed it; they rejected it. Where do we stand? Are we among the simple ones? Are we among the holy ones? Or are we among the ones that think we are religious and therefore we know better and we can try to tell God how He ought to do things?
We need to be very careful because soon the manifestation of Jesus Christ will be among us; all we need to do is look at the signs of the times and learn how to interpret them. If we will be humble and simple like the shepherds, or if we will be holy like Simeon and Anna, or even if we have walked away from Jesus Christ and are trying to live a pagan life, the manifestation among us is clear and we know what we need to do. But if we are going to be like Herod, the chief priests, the scribes, and the people of Jerusalem, then rather than changing our lives, rather than recognizing what is happening in our midst, we will embrace the paganism of our society and we will reject the Lord. The choice is ours. On this Feast of the Epiphany, all I can ask is that you look around and ask yourself, “What is God trying to manifest to us by letting us see what is happening in society? And what is our response to that manifestation?” That is up to us. God’s manifestation, I think, is very clear – the response is ours.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.